Gaiole in Chianti and l’Eroica
Having crossed the backbone of Italy overnight, we find ourselves in Gaiole for the final star of the challenge. Two hundred kilometres, half of which traverse the strada Bianca or gravel roads of Tuscany. The L’Eroica is an event which seeks to evoke the golden age of cycling with wool jerseys, spare tubulars worn a la mode and vintage single speed bikes the order of the day. We’ve gone slightly higher tech with our carbon machines but still feel an affinity with the past masters such as Coppi and Bartali who enjoyed frequent battles on the gravel.
As we roll out of Gaiole, sixteen sections of gravel lie ahead of us. The good weather from yesterday has followed us from Emilia Romagna into Tuscany and provides some warmth to the legs as we roll south along Val Biena. We exchange excited chatter in anticipation of the first section. Quickly the speculation is replaced with realisation. Our first experiences show the gravel to be fine and hardpacked. Although caution is required on downhill corners, for the most part you can relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the farm roads. After four kilometres we emerge back onto tarmac and count down the miles ‘til the next gravel section. The route points us towards Siena and as we descend towards the historic town, its famous towers appear on the horizon. We trace the edge of the conurbation and climb up again. The views today are simply stunning. The impulse to stop and drink in the view is difficult to resist but continue we must especially with 150km still to cover. The next section of gravel we cover is short and sharp; a 500m downhill section, thankfully straight and rut free. An oncoming tractor provokes momentary concern but seconds later we are past it and exiting onto tarmac once more.
We are heading south towards our mid-way point at the hill-town of Montalcino. The gravel sections extend in length as the terrain becomes more rural. Two fourteen kilometre sections in close succession lead us deep into the heart of the Tuscan countryside. The crackle of tyres on gravel is the only punctuation to sounds of nature. Uphill sections add our breathing to the counterpoint of tranquillity. The gravel hairpins on approach to Montalcino require our concentration from a technical point of view. Steep sections need to be tackled sui pedale but the loose surface is best tackled sitting down. A constant balance is required to maintain forward momentum. Choice of line becomes crucial. By now the midday sun has evaporated the early dew and our wheel tracks leave a cloud of white dust in our wake.
A hearty Tuscan lunch is on the cards as we roll dustily into Montalcino. A site of settlement since Etruscan times, its hill side position offers a commanding view over the Val d’Asso. Cam leads in search of a suitable café. My eye is drawn to the fleeting vistas that are offered by each lane leading off the main street like a huge zoetrope. I can’t help but draw comparisons with my native Edinburgh and the views down the numerous closes to the Firth of Forth and Fife beyond. Having enjoyed a bowl of pasta and a glass of Brunello di Montalcino we continue on our way. Our next waymarkers are San Giovanni d’Asso, Buonconvento and Asciano. With the halfway point reached we start to understand the true spirit of L’Eroica. Its differs from the raw landscapes and pure physical challenge of the Campagnolo or the sense of competition engendered from twelve thousand fellow racers at the Nove Colli. L’Eroica showcases Tuscany in all its lush green glory. The gravel roads provide escape from motorised traffic and reconnection with nature and rural living. We pass through villages whose only link to the outside world is via strada bianca. Their existence seems to symbolise a way of life unchanged over the years and a million miles removed from our London lives.
Heading north now we track through arable fields of wheat and barley, past grazing cattle basking in the sun and the chug-chug of an ancient tractor. The inevitable weariness in our legs is offset by a general feeling of contentment and peace. Our route for the moment traces the river valleys of the Ombrone and the Asso. We can see from the profile though that beyond Asciano the route starts to undulate more as it heads back towards Chianti. Castelnuovo Berardenga is our next destination. It’s a self appointed ‘citta slow’ which seems entirely apt given the relaxed pace of life here. We pass the ruins of the castle constructed in 1366 and continue back into Chianti. Four sections of sterrata to go, we plug on.
We’re almost on the homeward stretch as we pick up signposts to Radda. The heat is starting to fade from the sun as we tackle sections thirteen and fourteen but the lengthening shadows only seem to highten the beauty of the landscape. The cipressa cast long shadows across the roads and hillsides, their pencil shapes like searchlights in negative across the land. The last two sections turn out to be the toughest of the route with steep changes in relief to tackle in the fading light. In my fatigued state it requires all my concentration to keep the bike on the straight and narrow on the bumpy descents. Cam and Ian are right with me and focussed with equal determination on the finish. As we exit the final section it’s only a few miles to roll back to the finish and our starting point in Gaiole.
As the town sign comes into view it is a sight that even this morning we couldn’t dare imagine. Over pizza in the town square we slowly come to terms with what we have achieved in the last four days. We’ve ridden close to 1000km and climbed twice the height of Everest in a journey that took us from the last snow of winter to the seaside in summer and from the vineyards of Valdobbiadene to Chianti and Montalcino. It’s a journey that will leave a lasting impression on all of us, each one taking away something different from the adventure, but all glad to have conquered the four stars.